Sunday 19 January 2020

Stephen Hunt: Jose needs a fast start to exorcise ghosts of Chelsea failure

‘Jose Mourinho likes physicality in his teams, in strength and running’ Photo: PA/Wire
‘Jose Mourinho likes physicality in his teams, in strength and running’ Photo: PA/Wire

Stephen Hunt

It's been another week when Jose Mourinho's comments have attracted headlines and, as tiresome and trivial as that pantomime can sometimes seem, here's a little secret: When you're a player in an opposition team set to take on one of his sides - as is the case with Bournemouth today - you are looking out for what he's going to say. You want to know. It does add something.

That's because he's either trying to get into your head or, showing that provocative Mourinho confidence that you want to respond to. It's not quite a case of him claiming your right-back is a weakness and you want to prove him wrong, but I would say he is very successful at - a phrase I've used here before - planting seeds in your mind; creating some doubt in the opposition. The little details do get in your head, for sure. He's just doing that little bit to disrupt your focus. It works.

It probably isn't as effective for the big teams who are well used to him but, for anyone coming up, or in high-pressure matches like Champions League semi-finals, I would say his words off the pitch do have an impact on it.

For all that, it is something of a shame that there is such a concentration on the managers these days, because it should be about the players. I understand why that's the case, of course. With managers now, it's not just about overseeing the team, but also cultivating the image of the club. They're the face of it, so they often need to be personalities in their own right. It is in some way ironic because they do all that, and now come with such defined philosophies and plans for the future, only to often get sacked within six months.

Either way, there is a huge level of expectation that does have an influence on the players. The pressure means managers can get very controlling about every aspect on a pitch, and we are losing mavericks in the game as a consequence. There just isn't the space for players to be as creative, to be as off-the-cuff. Managers don't want to allow the risk.

Mourinho is the best example of this, and Juan Mata is a good example as a player. I actually think Mourinho would be right in getting rid of Mata. For me, he's just not fast enough for a team that wants to challenge for the title. Mourinho likes physicality in his teams, in strength and running, and his best sides were those with speed like Chelsea with Damien Duff or Inter Milan with Samuel Eto'o. Mata doesn't give you that.

It's why I wouldn't blame Mourinho for not killing the Mata questions last Sunday in a way he could have, and I think we're going to see a game of cat and mouse between them from now until the end of the transfer window.

Mata has a great chance of topping up his pension in the next three weeks and he also knows that he's popular among the fans, so that's a hand to play. It's why we won't get straight answers from Mourinho on this, and he'll only ever hint at what he's actually thinking. There'll be a lot of "he's a fantastic player (to get his value up) but I have my style (I'd sell him)". Expect to hear a lot of that, and from more managers than just Mourinho. It's also a bit of politics to keep the fans happy.

Mourinho needs a fast start because he doesn't want any bad results leading his players to be talking about his most recent spell at Chelsea. That's also why we won't see him firing too many bullets yet, since he doesn't have the back-up of coming in to Manchester United on a trophy-winning high. There will still be a few subtle digs by his standards, mind.

Last season will weigh heavily on him, and he'll know he made mistakes, but I think the rest and time out of the game will have done him good. I do like his style, though, and admire the ­discipline in his teams. I know a fair few players who worked for him and the biggest testament is that they all loved him. Even those who didn't like him loved him as a manager. That ­psychology is his biggest strength.

I remember my former team-mate Steve Sidwell, who was at Chelsea for a while, telling me that Mourinho had a little trick with him. He would tell him that he would be in the team in three games' time, so to be ready for then. That worked brilliantly because it meant Mourinho could leave Steve out of the side with no need for explanation, but the player was content because he knew he'd eventually be in the team, and was building himself up for that fixture. Little things like that mean a lot to players.

As regards managers needing to be 'personalities', the most boring - in a good way - is Arsene Wenger. He's not under pressure, so doesn't play those games, and can afford to allow his players more freedom. It's telling that he has more mavericks in his team than anyone.

I am a fan of Wenger, and would always have confidence in him, but can understand the criticism about the lack of signings.

I remember at Crystal Palace when I was young, we signed Attilio Lombardo. With his enthusiasm, his character, his quality and his pedigree as an Italian international, he gave everyone around the place a lift. That's what Arsenal would benefit from too. They would obviously look to bring in someone of stature to them, but it can often be the positive effect of a purchase, just the effect of a new personality to change things up. Players feel it too, and crowds obviously do.

Arsenal definitely need a centre-half and, at the moment, I'd say the only players in their squad happy with the situation are those who play in central defence or up front. They don't have competition for their places.

I've seen Arsenal a bit behind the scenes, though, and do expect them to be competitive as ever as a whole. Wenger is charismatic and there's a lot he doesn't show to the media.

His rival today, Jurgen Klopp, is in the same mould. He is very structured in the way he goes about it but I think a bit looser in his style than Pep Guardiola or Mourinho, and allows more freedom to players.

That is just another big reason why I think Liverpool will end up winning the league. I touched on it last week and, having thought about it, I'm willing to go further now. They'll win it. They have made good signings, they have the extra time in their schedule and - ­appropriately, given what we've been talking about - they have the manager.

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